After years of determination, ambition, preparation and sometimes, even frustration, it’s safe to say that the aura has returned to Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
It’s not always easy to gain attention in hockey-mad Vancouver, but with nearly every major sports outlet in town eagerly covering the opening day of Whitecaps FC preseason training, a change of perception is clearly in the air.
“It’s happened organically,” Whitecaps FC president Bob Lenarduzzi said. “From the turnout of media over the course of the offseason, and certainly more recently, we’re getting more and more coverage on a daily basis."
It’s not as if the city hasn’t had professional soccer before. Vancouver barely went two years without a team after the old Whitecaps became victims of the North American Soccer League’s demise in 1984. The 86ers quickly came to the rescue, commemoratively launched after the FIFA World Cup that year, and the club eventually returned to the Whitecaps moniker in 2001.
They were far more popular than the average D-2 soccer club, but in a city with such a rich soccer history, nothing but the best will do.
“I think that the level of professionalism has multiplied by leaps and bounds from last year,” said defender Wes Knight, having played for the D-2 Whitecaps the last two seasons before signing an MLS contract with the club.
It’s now been nearly two years since the announcement was made that Vancouver would be granted an MLS franchise, and they’ve been hard at work ever since, establishing partnerships, signing players, and holding their first training camp last month in Southern California.
The buzz has been building throughout the process, but with the March 19 season opener against Toronto FC in sight, the publicity is being felt now more than ever. As MLS players equipped in the club’s new gear finally train at home, it’s evident that Whitecaps FC are returning to the forefront of Vancouver’s professional sports scene.
“It’s not something that we’ve had to manufacture,” Lenarduzzi said. “There’s a genuine and sincere interest in what we’re doing and how we’re evolving.”
The return to Empire Field has helped generate excitement, rekindling a feeling of nostalgia among longtime Whitecaps supporters. Terry Dunfield spent his childhood in Vancouver, and the former Manchester City prodigy says that it’s starting to feel just like old times.
“It’s great looking up at the mountains here, and it’s kind of special being the only boy from Vancouver,” Dunfield said. “I’ll have lots of family at all the home games.”
Dunfield said that he couldn’t of dreamed playing for the Whitecaps on this large a scale, even a few years ago. But now that they’re returning to elite status, the city’s future soccer stars will be able to have such dreams.
“There’s definitely something for the young players in Vancouver to aspire to now,” he added. “If you work really hard, you could one day play for the Whitecaps in front of 20,000 or 30,000 fans.”
Indeed, with each passing week, it’s becoming more and more obvious: The Vancouver Whitecaps are back.